GOD'S WORD TODAY () - May 15, 2011 - 12:00am

We like fences. We top them with barbed wire or broken glass. We even gate our communities and create a separate lane for those without gate passes. These are all security measures to protect us against thieves and akyat-bahay gangs.

Even when it comes to religion, we tend to retreat into subdivisions. This is the main beef of anti-religionists. Religion creates fences. They separate people into those who are in and those who are out. In their rudimentary view, they contend religion only serves to create wars and division. They turn a blind eye to the misery and abuse that are suffered as well in societies that are markedly secular or atheist.

The problem with religion of course is that it is human. As the cultural and social expression of one’s faith in God, it is not exempt from sinfulness. It may give the impression it is an exclusive club for saintly members only. It can be fooled by false and unreasonable shepherds. It can be raided and run by thieves and charlatans.

Enter Jesus in the gospel today. He begins with a metaphor comparing himself to a shepherd. This is an ancient image which is just lost on the Pharisees who always held Israel to be the flock led by the Lord who was their shepherd. For Jesus to predicate that of himself was like equating this son of the carpenter with the Lord of Israel.

Then he talks about sheep stealers. This again is lost on the Pharisees because of course he was talking about them.

Because that went over their heads, Jesus takes another metaphor. Sige na nga, “I am the gate for the sheep.” Whoever enters through me will make it back to Paradise. Yup, Paradise, that wonderful garden that has been gated ever since Adam and Eve got fooled by that talking snake. Gets?

Then he talks about sheep stealers again. Kulit. This time, he is rolling his eyes because they still don’t get it.

Imagine you had property and you fenced it high and forgot to put the gate. If you were fencing it from the inside, you might fool yourself into thinking you’re safe from thieves. Perhaps you are, but you’re also trapped. If you were fencing the area from the outside, again with no gate, then what good is that precious property for?

There is no point in having gates unless of course you’re happy to be trapped inside your precious property or you’re happy to be locked outside. You’d do away with gates if you saw no point in getting in or going out.

But when Jesus says he is gate, he is telling us simply that he is the opening we need. You would never appreciate openings if you’ve never been locked in or out in life. If you’re honest, you know how often we do lock ourselves and each other out or in. To help our honesty, it is good to look at the fences in our lives, the people we fence out or those we try to keep in.

“Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The key movement here is flux. The fundamental force is freedom. The Gate enables us to freely come in and go out, and find pasture. Jesus is saying: go through me, not around me; use the gate. If you think you’re all set and happy inside, wait till you go to the space outside and find the grass. Let the view expand your heart. If you think you’re good and all happy outside, come in and find solace in the company of saints and sinners who dare to live in communion with each other inside. Let the closeness deepen your love.

Jesus here is speaking of a refreshingly new and happier way to relate to God, ourselves, and the world. He is not junking religion. He is only tearing down fences that have no gate or opening.

Thus when he talks about thieves, he is speaking to the pharisee (or the self-righteous) in us. Our disordered attachments to our rightnesses and ideologies are a form of thievery as they are a kind of slavery. They steal the truth and the life away from us. They create a false sense of identity, security, and entitlement. They steal the the serenity and joy that are always found abundantly when one places himself or herself in the hands of God who is always larger than ourselves.

Let us be cautious then in defining ourselves by the fences that separate us from the heathen and the gentile and from all those who do not believe the way we do. There is a gate to remind us that we are who we are by who we include and embrace.

Time to come in, if you’ve been languishing outside. Time to go out, if you’re all too settled inside. No need to climb over the fence. Use the gate.

*      *      *

Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin SJ is President of Xavier University, Ateneo de Cagayan. For feedback on this column, email tinigloyola @yahoo.com

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